Lagarde: skillful trailblazer with a knack for straight talk

Lagarde: skillful trailblazer with a knack for straight talk

Five years ago Christine Lagarde smashed through the glass ceiling at one of the world's leading institutions, becoming the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund.

The French lawyer and former finance minister, who was last year voted the world's sixth most powerful woman by Forbes magazine, has seen her popularity in France hit a peak and some see hints of further political ambitions despite legal woes.

Lagarde, 60, has brushed aside the chatter and announced Friday she would run for a second five-year term as IMF managing director when her current one expires in July.

She has already won strong European backing for another stint, as well as glowing praise from top US officials, after steering the global lender through one of its most difficult challenges – rescuing the eurozone from meltdown.

But she now faces a potential hurdle in her stellar career: an order in December to stand trial in a French court, accused of negligence when she was Frances finance chief in a massive government payment to French tycoon Bernard Tapie to settle a 2008 business dispute.

It will not be her first headwind at the 188-nation IMF. After taking the helm in July 2011, she patiently worked to restore the institution's luster after the ouster of predecessor Dominique Strauss-Kahn amid a sex scandal.

The IMF move gave her a powerful seat inside the closed circle of the world's leaders – where women are notable by their absence – but also responsibility for handling Greece’s debt crisis that threatened the whole European economy.

Less than a year after her arrival, the initial rescue plan for Greece crumbled and the IMF was forced to join an expanded second bailout operation, taking the cost to a massive 240 billion euros ($270 billion).

Yet Greece kept bleeding, and now has a third bailout that the IMF supports but has not contributed to financially.  A tough negotiator and determined consensus-builder, Lagarde did not hesitate to cross swords with the very officials she worked closely with in her previous job, even criticizing her successor as finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, of being asleep during one crisis meeting.

“There are many instances of Ms. Lagarde’s courageous truth-telling,” said economist Desmond Lachman, a former IMF official.

At the same time, she skillfully managed the shifting currents of power in the Fund, where emerging giants like China are challenging the Europe-US-dominated status quo.

Lagarde recently scored two major successes at the IMF: the addition of the Chinese yuan to the Fund's basket of reserve currencies and the passage by the US Congress of long-stalled IMF reforms, for which she had joked she would “do belly-dancing” if needed to get US ratification.

The silver-haired mother of two sons, whose chic wardrobe has also grabbed media attention – she was once listed among the “best-dressed” personalities in Vanity Fair magazine – also has fashioned herself as an icon to talented women fighting male dominance in large organizations like the IMF.

A steady career climb to the top of global finance has long made Lagarde a French stand-out.

Born in Paris, her parents were teachers and she was brought up in the port city of Le Havre. As a teenager she was a synchronized swimming champion and learned to speak nearly flawless English.

After earning a law degree, she skipped a French establishment career and instead joined the Paris office of prestigious US legal consulting giant Baker & McKenzie.

She pushed her way up to become chairwoman of the company's global executive committee in 1999, a first for the firm, and then of its global strategy committee in 2004.

She then embraced politics, joining the government of president Jacques Chirac as trade minister in June 2005.

Two years later, Chirac's successor Nicolas Sarkozy named her agriculture minister, and shortly after switched her to the finance portfolio in 2007, making her the first woman named to the post which she held 2011, a record longevity.

Though not formally an economist, she proved deft at dealing with the financial crisis that would threaten eurozone unity.

During a job interview at a major French law firm at the start of her career, Lagarde recalled in an NPR radio interview how she was told there was no way to break through the glass ceiling.

“'You can join us tomorrow and be an associate, be given great tasks and great files and great clients to work on, but don't ever expect to make partnership' And I said, 'Why would that be?'

They said, 'Because youre a woman.'” “And I just left….,” she said.


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